By now, the world has seen the heartrending photos of the aftermath of the Aug. 14 earthquake that devastated Haiti’s southwest, leaving more than 2,000 dead and thousands more injured. The images are reminiscent of those from the 2010 quake that struck the capital, Port-au-Prince. Buildings on the verge of total breakdown lean precariously to one side or, like the National Palace in 2010, crumple like the buckled center of a partially baked cake. More than a decade later, when I visited Port-au-Prince last November, the National Palace still had not been reconstructed, the vacant lot a memorial and a metaphor for a failed state felled by political corruption and nature’s inexorable pummeling.
Last weekend’s earthquake was insult on top of injury — nature’s destructive force striking just over a month after the assassination of Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse, which worsened ongoing political and social turmoil. But this is Haiti: a country where catastrophes, natural and man-made, are relentless, battering and burying my people at every turn.
This isn’t the first time that political and natural calamities have dealt simultaneous blows to the country. So often, the crises come together, exacerbating and feeding off each other. In the aftermath of natural disasters, funds pour into the country for recovery efforts, leading to greater political avarice and instability. And the merciless political aftershocks make it impossible to restore a nation on its knees or build resistance to further disasters. We saw this in 2010, but the pattern began much earlier.
In 2004, former president Jean-Betrand Aristide fled Haiti amid a public rebellion. A string of natural disasters followed, most notably the murderous Hurricane Jeanne, which took about 3,000 lives. Over the next four years, as the country saw the presidency change hands twice more, the deluge from no fewer than three tropical storms and hurricanes flooded the land, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless or dead.
And even in the earliest days of the country’s founding, the self-liberated nation reeled from this calamitous coupling of nature’s rage and political chaos. In 1820, Haiti’s first monarch, King Henri Christophe, killed himself. His son immediately succeeded him, only to be murdered 10 days later. In 1825, the French returned to Haiti demanding reparations for lost property, human and land alike, precipitating the economic drain from which Haiti has never recovered. After that, a series of cyclones hit, capped off by a monstrous earthquake in 1842 that ripped through towns in and around Cap-Haïtien.
So here I am today — a daughter of the diaspora wrestling against survivor’s guilt for having escaped ruinous adversity under which my people live minute by minute. Born in Haiti, I was brought to the United States as a toddler during the terrorist regime of “Baby Doc” Jean-Claude Duvalier. My mother’s father had been “disappeared” seven years earlier by “Papa Doc” François Duvalier. Though my mother, sister and I were not in immediate danger, we considered our immigration to the United States a rescue or evacuation.
My guilt is heightened in times like these, when I see myself in the face of every stumbling child and hear my voice in the wail of every grieving mother. I see the leveled wood-and-concrete shelters, their thin tin roofs ripped off, and remember the huts that formed the “lakou” (yard) where I was born. And I break down as individual and collective PTSD collide. We live in what Jean-Paul Sartre described in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” as a permanent “nervous condition,” the anxiety of colonized people past and present who are retraumatized by political malevolence and outright violence.
I don’t know how to heal my country. But I do know this: Haitians are not seeking pity or even compassion via condolences and platitudes. The world keeps asking: “What can we do?” This is often the wrong question, posed by the wrong people. Haitians need but do not want the aid of foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations. We have been handicapped and victimized by this as much as, or maybe more than, our own leaders. My friends and neighbors call, email and text requests for honest charities working on the ground. I offer some reputable (I think) referrals and move on. History has taught us that the charitable contributions rarely reach the people.
What we Haitians need and want is a reprieve so we can rebuild. But we should not try to reconstruct the irreparably damaged structure that is our nation. We must find a way to demolish the unstable construction that threatens to fall on top of remaining survivors, clear the detritus, and build our institutions from the ground up. No true, sustainable rebuilding can occur without such an effort, led by Haitians.
The time for this must come. But now, as we take in the wreckage of our country yet again, we are left raising our calloused hands and hoarse voices, and asking powers both human and celestial: “What more do you want from us?”
Francesca Momplaisir is a Haitian-born scholar and author of “My Mother’s House.” Her upcoming novel, “The Garden of Broken Things,” is about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.